Women's Equality Day, celebrated annually on August 26, commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, granting women the right to vote. This effort to gain legal recognition as equal citizens had its formal beginning in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first women’s rights convention was held. For more than 70 years, women led a peaceful movement to win the vote and gain full equality.
The 19th Amendment changed Federal law but women in some states—particularly those of color—were still blocked from voting after ratification. The voting rights of Native American women were not recognized until 1924. For Chinese American women, it was 1943, and for Japanese and other Asian American women it was 1952. It wasn’t until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, that African American women were granted the right to vote.
Women’s Equality Day not only gives us an opportunity to commemorate the efforts of the suffrage movement, but to reflect on the continuing struggle for equality in the workplace and the role of women in our public life. Women in military, public service and government have long served this nation by working to clear barriers, enforce laws, implement new ideas, and change people’s attitudes.
Women have served in the United States Army since 1775 and remain an invaluable and essential part of the U.S. Army. Today, women make up 18 percent of the regular Army, the Army National Guard and Army Reserve, and 36 percent of the Army’s civilian workforce. In May, Honorable Christine Wormuth was nominated to be the first female Secretary of the Army, and Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson was nominated to become the second woman in Army history to receive the rank of four-star general.
In honor of Women’s Equality Day, leaders from across the South Pacific Division were asked to share their thoughts on women’s equality in the workplace.
Q. When you think back to the beginning of your career, what kind of changes have you seen for women in the workplace?
Col. Antoinette Gant, PMP, South Pacific Division Commander: When I attended the Engineer Officer’s Basic Course, females were placed on track that prepared them to serve in units that were construction focus only. Soon after, the benefits of preparing females for all tracks as an engineer were realized and a change was made. Additionally, there were certain career fields in the Army that were off limits to women. We now have females working side by side with their male counterparts in combat operations, obtaining ranger tabs, and serving as commanders in units that were male dominant.
Ms. Cheree Peterson, SES, South Pacific Division Programs Director: There have been SO many changes and all of them for the better. Changes ranging from big (multiple women in SES positions) to small (no one expects us to wear pantyhose or straight hair anymore), and I am pleased/proud to be a part of them. At the beginning of my career, I only knew of two female SES (I was at the Office of Management and Budget at the time) and very few GS-15s, and those that were at these senior levels tended to be single, never had children, and were solely career-focused. Women who had children were definitely shuffled to lower-level jobs or had to “hide” the fact that they were parents. I say hide in that they didn’t have to lie or anything, but the fact that they were mothers had to be invisible. The fact that this ”motherhood” stigma has disappeared is true progress. I am also pleased that the women in leadership are a more diverse group than in the past, though there is still work to do in this area.
Col. Julie Balten, Los Angeles District Commander: There have been many positive changes in the Army since I began my career. Women were not allowed in combat units and therefore limited command opportunities. I am happy to say that all positions within the Army are open to women. I also witnessed the promotion of the first woman Engineer General Officer, and was witness to the first Engineer woman as a Major General and the first women to graduate Ranger School.
Q. Is there a woman in history or current day whose personal story or accomplishments inspire you?
Col. Gant: There are so many…. I look at my own mother’s story who taught secondary education for over 30 years and then decided to obtain a doctoral degree and is now a Dean at a local university. Reading and hearing about others like Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Margaret Burcham, Coach Dawn Staley, Michelle Obama and our Vice President Kamala Harris have served as inspiration. Seeing their works, learning of the challenges they faced, and how they turned obstacles into opportunities continue to drive me in my quest to see the good in all, open doors for others to walk through and to serve without limits.
Ms. Peterson: Two former supervisors of mine have been inspiring to me throughout my career: Dr. Kathy Peroff, former SES at OMB, and Lorraine Howerton, first woman Chief of Staff in the House of Representatives. I worked for both of them early on in my career and the wisdom I learned from both of them has definitely informed my career and family decisions. At the time, I didn’t necessarily appreciate all that they went through to get to where they were, but I have a greater appreciation for how they paved the way for me to achieve my current positions. The battles that they fought, up-front and/or behind the scenes, made this job possible for me.
Col. Balten: There are so many women throughout history and current day who inspire me. A few from the list include the women in the West Point class of 1980, Col. (Ret.) Yvonne Prettyman-Beck, the first African-American Engineer Battalion Commander of the 84th Engineer Battalion; and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Jessica Wright, the first woman in the Army National Guard to become a helicopter pilot, who later became the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.
Q. What role have mentors played in your professional journey? What have you learned from mentoring others?
Col. Gant: There has always been someone throughout my career who offered counsel; however, it wasn’t until more than 10 years in that I truly felt I had mentors who consistently played a role in my professional development. I’ve tried to be that constant for those I mentor. Everyone needs a board of directors. Those who will tell you not what you would like to hear but what you need to hear. What I’ve learned is there are more that desire to have mentors than there are people willing to invest the time to be a mentor. I’ve also learned how important it is to not just have a mentor but the need to have a sponsor as well. Mentors give guidance, sponsors open doors.
Ms. Peterson: I have had some great mentors throughout my career, most of them men, since it was mostly men above me. The one that made the biggest career difference for me was Joe Calcara. Joe was the one mentor who not only thought I had SES potential, but also made sure that my career would be varied enough to make me competitive to get into the SES cadre. He knew what the panels were looking for in Executive Core Qualifications and interviews and made sure that I had opportunities to bolster my application. He also heavily invested in helping me write my Executive Core Qualifications, which resulted in my ECQs passing though Office of Personnel Management the first time and in less than two weeks. He helped me to see that as a mentor, I need to be thinking ahead for my mentees about what they need to meet their career goals. I have also since learned that it is important to communicate with my mentees that they need to consider their whole lives in making career decisions from the get-go, that stepping back at times is okay, and also being real about the challenges of being a woman in leadership. It is much easier than it was, but there are still disadvantages. I also encourage others (and myself) to be consciously deciding to make sure our mentees are a diverse group that reflect the community we live in. This sometimes means asking to be someone’s mentor or acting as someone’s mentor whether they know it or not.
Col. Balten: Mentors helped guide me and gave me encouragement. I feel mentoring is two-sided. I learned to listen better and that no one path is better than the other – we must create our own authentic paths to find success.
Q. What is one piece of advice you would give to those starting out in their career to help create a more equal workplace?
Col. Gant: This could be very difficult for someone starting their career as they are trying to figure it all out for themselves. Here are just a few nuggets for consideration: 1. Be aware of your own unconscious bias 2. Participate in diversity and inclusion training 3. Be the change/example you want to see.
Ms. Peterson: There is no such thing as a balance between work and homelife. The balance will ebb and flow, so I wish you the happiest imbalance that you can find!
Col. Balten: Never be afraid to be you!